10 Ways to Explore Women’s History in Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., is nationally recognized for its rich history and beautifully preserved 18th– and 19th-century architecture, including many sites important to women’s history. To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’ve rounded up our top 10 ways to explore women’s history in Alexandria, from sites associated with abolitionist Harriet Jacobs to new waterfront restaurant Vola’s Dockside Grill named after Alexandria’s first female city manager and local Civil Rights leader Vola Lawson. You can also celebrate Women’s History Month by supporting women-owned businesses in Alexandria, including almost 90% of the shops in the Old Town Boutique District. Keep reading to learn more about the people and places in Alexandria who helped forge the way for women’s rights.

1. Harriet Jacobs Sites

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“I am full of hope for the future. A Power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last.”—Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs was an abolitionist from Boston who courageously came to Alexandria during the Civil War, inspired by the racism and sexism she had endured in her own life, to educate and empower contrabands and freedmen. Jacobs escaped from slavery after hiding in her grandmother’s attic for seven years, and eventually published an autobiography, “Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl,” considered to be the first book to show a first-person account of an enslaved woman’s experience. In season 2 of PBS’ Mercy Street, the character of Charlotte Jenkins, played by Tony award-winning actor Patina Miller, is inspired by Harriet Jacobs.

Visitors can learn more about Harriet Jacobs at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, which includes a poignant quote from Jacobs. The cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African-Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria between 1864 and 1869 to escape from bondage, but did not live long in freedom. Visitors can experience a memorial park that commemorates the free African-American men, women and children interred on its grounds through bronze panels, a sculpture, and bas-reliefs designed by female artist Joanna Blake.

You can also visit the former site of a Contraband Hospital at 321-323 S. Washington Street, now housing a private business, where Harriet Jacobs lived with aid worker Julia Wilbur from 1863-1865. Learn more about the incredible story of Harriet Jacobs here.

2. National Women’s History Museum Tours

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The National Women’s History Museum offers an Alexandria walking tour, “Women of Civil War Alexandria.” On the tour, visitors learn more about women’s roles during the Civil War in Alexandria and explore the stories of a diverse group of women and their experiences living here during the war. The tour is offered March 18, 19, and 24, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. Don’t miss their events calendar for more events relating to Women’s History. 

3. Vola’s Dockside Grill + Hi-Tide Lounge

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New in 2016 from Alexandria Restaurant Partners (Lena’s, Virtue Feed & Grain, The Majestic), Vola’s Dockside Grill + Hi-Tide Lounge is named for Alexandria’s first female city manager and local Civil Rights leader Vola Lawson. The Washington Post wrote that Vola Lawson “helped stabilize the city’s finances while championing affordable housing, minority hiring and women’s rights,” U.S. House Rep. James P. Moran said Vola Lawson “set the direction of the city for a generation to come.” Pay tribute to Vola Lawson and check out cool historical photos from the city’s history at Vola’s Dockside Grill, which features outdoor dining right on the Marina overlooking the Potomac River at 7 King Street and serves up fresh seafood, with the Hi-Tide Lounge mixing cocktails and serving up small bites next door.

While you’re there, check out the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a one-of-a-kind art center housing 82 working artist studios, including many female artists. The campaign to create the Torpedo Factory Art Center was spearheaded by two women, Marge Alderson and Marian Van Landingham.

4. Edmonson Sisters Statue

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Sisters Emily and Mary Edmonson were 15 and 13 years old when they attempted to escape from slavery aboard the schooner Pearl from Washington, D.C. along with 75 other enslaved African-Americans. After being captured in the Chesapeake Bay, they were sold to Joseph Bruin, who operated the Bruin “Negro Jail” on Duke Street in Alexandria. The Edmonson sisters were initially sent south to slave markets in New Orleans, but returned to Alexandria on promises that their father would purchase them. After desperately attempting to raise funds, including traveling to New York to plead his cause, their father was able to get enough money and free the sisters with the help of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and other Northern Abolitionists. Harriet Beecher Stowe, sister of Rev. Beecher and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, used the story as research for her book, which polarized the country around the issue of slavery.

Near the corner of Duke Street and Reinekers Lane is the Edmonson Sisters sculpture, a gorgeous tribute to sisters Mary and Emilia Edmonson who were born into slavery and attempted escape at the ages of 15 and 13 respectively. The sisters were captured and held in bondage at the Bruin’s “Negro Jail” (pictured left above), and purchased by their father. Visitors can use the self-guided tour “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey” to learn more about the Edmonson sisters on page 9, and about the Bruin “Negro Jail” on page 7. When you visit, take a look at the back of the sculpture to see if you can find the ship engraved into it.

5. National Inventors Hall of Fame

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Renovated in 2016, the National Inventors Hall of Fame is located on the United States Patent and Trademark Office campus in Alexandria, VA, and features several female innovators including Beulah Louise Henry, known as “Lady Edison” for creating more than 100 inventions, including a bobbin-free sewing machine and a vacuum ice cream freezer. Other female inventors include Edith Flanigan, who invented molecular sieves that led to innovations in water purification and environmental cleanup, and Mildred Dresselhaus, the “queen of carbon science,” who was the first Institute Professor at MIT, in physics and electrical engineering.  Dresselhaus attended Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, and her studies laid the groundwork for lithium-ion batteries among other achievements.

At the National Inventors Hall of Fame, visitors can experience the gallery of icons and interactive displays illustrating each of the 500+ Inductees and their great technological achievements, including those of many women.

6. Women-Owned Businesses of the Old Town Boutique District

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Eighty-seven percent of the shops in the Old Town Boutique District (OTBD) are owned by women. You can Shop Small as you support these independent, women-owned businesses and honor those who have grown and enriched Alexandria’s small business community. Learn more about these businesses on the Old Town Boutique District blog.

7. Annie B. Rose Sites

Alexandria Black History MuseumImage Credit: M. Stewart for Visit Alexandria

Born in 1893, Annie B. Rose, the daughter of a slave herself, dedicated her life to improving housing opportunities and home nursing services for the elderly and educating the youth of Alexandria about black history and slavery. Rose was one of the founders of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, opened the Black History Resource Center in Alexandria and became the first black president of the Alexandria Women’s Civic Association. Rose but her impact was felt outside Alexandria, too. She helped organize people for the March on Washington and won over 30 awards for local and national groups in recognition of her life, including the Living Legend Award from the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged.

Visitors can learn more about Annie B. Rose through her papers at the Alexandria Black History Museum, where there is a display at the entrance in her honor.

8. Alexandria Self-Guided Women’s History Tour

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The Women’s History Self-Guided Tour covers over a dozen different sites in a one-and-a-half-mile loop. It begins at the Alexandria Visitor’s Center at 221 King Street and ends on the Alexandria waterfront, just two short blocks from the tour’s beginning. A map of the tour is included at the end, along with descriptions of the sites. In addition to the sites included in the one-and-a-half-mile tour loop, there are nearby sites that are also important to women’s history. These sites are all within a short driving distance or could be added into your walking tour on an individual basis. The Women’s History Tour is also available as a podcast at: http://alexandriava.gov/Podcasts.

9. Carlyle House Museum

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The centuries of history that unfolded at Carlyle House mean this historic site is filled with stories that relate to women’s history. From Sally Fairfax Carlyle, wife of John Carlyle, to the Green Family and the Civil War nurses who inspired PBS’ Mercy Street; the women who lived and worked at Carlyle House and the adjacent Mansion House Hospital played an important role in Alexandria’s history.

Visitors can learn more about women’s history at Carlyle House through their exhibit, “Who These Wounded Are: Extraordinary Stories of Mansion House Hospital,” which highlights nurses like the real Mary Phinney, who inspired her character on PBS’ Mercy Street, and nurse, soldier and spy Sarah Edmonds.

10. Kate Waller Barrett Sites

Image Credit Library of VirginiaImage Credit: Library of Virginia

Born in 1857, Kate Waller Barrett lived in Alexandria and was a well known physician and social reformer whose mission was to help the “outcast woman, the mistreated prisoner, those lacking in educational and social opportunity, the voteless woman, and the disabled war veteran.” Barrett studied nursing at the Florence Nightingale Training School in London. Fans of PBS’ Mercy Street may recognize Florence Nightingale, who trained the character of Anne Hastings in the series. Kate Waller Barrett later opened the Florence Crittenden Home for unwed mothers, providing aid to mothers and their babies.

Visitors can learn more about Kate Waller Barrett at the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library at 717 Queen Street, or by visiting a historical marker at her former home at 408 Duke Street.

 

For more on historic sites and attractions in Alexandria, click here.

 

Header Image Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria